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-5 (1), 2012

European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

The Role of Leadership in Managing

Emergencies and Disasters

Fatih Demiroz1
Naim Kapucu2

Leadership in managing disasters and emergencies can minimize the damage
inflicted by an event whilst lack of successful leadership exacerbates the impact.
Leaders should have certain skills and abilities in order to manage catastrophes
based on the environmental conditions, organizations they lead, scope of the disaster.
This study provides an overview of the leadership competencies and traits that are
necessary for disaster management. A conceptual framework for leadership was
provided throughout the research.
Keywords: Crisis Leadership, Routine Emergencies, Catastrophic Disasters,
Extreme Events, Leadership Performance

University of Central Florida,

University of Central Florida,


Fatih Demiroz, Naim Kapucu

Both management of routine emergencies and major catastrophes require
a wide array of leadership/management competencies. The goal of emergency
management is: to devise policy and to implement programs that will reduce
vulnerability, limit the loss of life and property, protect the environment, and improve
multi-organizational coordination in disasters (McEntire and Dawson 2007, p.
60). Under the challenging and stressful conditions of emergencies, public expect
leaders to manage the incident successfully and move people out of harms way.
Emergencies and crises do not necessarily connote the same meaning. A crisis refers
to a broader understanding of events ranging from natural disasters manmade and
social problems (Farazmand 2007), while emergencies have a context-specific and
relatively narrow meaning. For the purpose of this study, crisis will be mentioned
from an emergency management perspective and the terms crisis and emergencies
will be used interchangeably.
Crisis and leadership are intertwined in that both concepts have a nature to
complement one another. It is the leaders responsibility to respond to the threats
and uncertainties stemming from crises. It is the challenge of the leader to bring
things back to normal. Despite the negative effects that are present in times of crisis,
it is important to acknowledge the fact that crises generate a window of opportunity
in which a leader has the chance to reform institutional structures and long-standing
policies. According to this crisis-reform thesis, a leader should avoid being
tainted by crises (Boin & tHart 2003). In contemporary world, we owe the presence
of modern crises to globalization, deregulation, information and communication
technology, and developments and technological advances. While these advances
promote a close-knit world, one cannot escape the fact that this only makes us all
more susceptible to the disastrous impact of even one crisis. When crises are to
occur, citizens look to leaders for safety and direction. It is important to note that
crises are not events that are neatly delineated, but are rather of high uncertainty.
The study examines the following research questions: What are the expected
leadership competencies in managing catastrophic disasters (or extreme events)?
Where does the nature of the competencies vary most between emergency
management and catastrophic management? We believe that answering these
research questions will provide emergency managers and political leaders useable
knowledge and examples that can be utilized under stressful conditions. The study
provides a conceptual overview of leadership competencies and traits and provides
brief examples of leadership failures.


European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

Theoretical Review
A crisis refers to an unforeseen situation. This situation usually is classified
as a disaster, catastrophe, threat or urgency. Crises are accompanied by a high
degree of uncertainty. The difficult aspects of a crisis are managing its preparation
and recovery. Emergency managers must contend with making urgent decisions
while information is unavailable. Citizens rely on these government officials to do
whatever they can to keep them out of harms way. This leadership during crises
can be defined as strategic tasks that encompass all activities associated with the
stages of crisis management (Boin et al. 2005, p. 9).
Disasters could be classified into two categories: manmade and natural
disasters. Manmade disasters include terror attacks, hazmat spill, sabotage, chemical
accidents, or any other disasters that are consequences of actions of human beings.
Natural disasters include all natural events such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes,
and droughts. In particular, manmade disasters present more in-depth problems
for emergency responders. Technological developments open new horizons for
better mitigation and preparedness to disasters and overcoming their negative
consequences. On the flip side of the coin, with technological advancement we
become more vulnerable to new types of threats such as communication system
breakdowns, bio-nuclear terrorism, and devastating oil spills that we recently
experienced in the Gulf of Mexico. One important point about our coping ability
with disasters is that in times of crises and disasters we look to our leaders for vision
and direction that will lead to the return of normalcy. It is this crisis management
that defines the true devastation of the event (Boin et al. 2005; tHart, Rosenthal, and
Kouzmin 1993).

Managing Routine Emergencies, Catastrophes, and Extreme Events

Crisis management entails activities that are meant to be focused in progressive
stages. Step one involves preventive measures. Step two involves mitigation. Step
three entails critical decision making by leadership. Step four is the eventual push
towards a return to normalcy and the status quo that was left behind.
In order to be an effective emergency manager, according to McEntire
and Dawson (2007), one must become well-acquainted with all departments and
agencies that will have a role in disasters four phases of emergency management.
Emergency management involves network of organizations from various fields
including public, nonprofit, and private sectors as well as organizations from


Fatih Demiroz, Naim Kapucu

different levels of government. Waugh and Streib (2006) underline that success of
an emergency manager is tied with the effectiveness of his/her interactions with
other government officials and disaster management community. Emergency
managers must use networks and relationships to develop uniform goals and
strategies. The most important tool needed for a network to work effectively in
the disaster response process is communication. It is communication that fosters
success in coordinating efforts that are necessary in order to achieve and maintain
common goals. McEntire and Dawson (2007) highlight three important components
of disaster communication. Firstly, pre-disaster ties are necessary for an effective
communication during disaster. Secondly, partnering organizations have to have
common or interoperable means of communications. This means that without a
common communication infrastructure and technology, emergency management
partners cannot communicate successfully. Lastly, organizations should be willing
to work together. Otherwise having pre-disaster ties and common communication
tools does not enhance coordination.
When the size of emergencies is small, meaning they are mere hazards or
incidents, local emergency management officials are completely capable of handling
the response. It is when emergencies are moderately-sized that they are classified
as disasters because they generally lead to loss of life and property. It is in these
circumstances that aid and assistance is not solely within the control of the local level.
The most intense classification of an emergency is that of catastrophic or extreme
nature. It is in these situations that all levels of government are involved in the
response effort. Unlike routine disasters, catastrophic disasters are unpredictable.
Communication disruption is more evident in catastrophic disasters because in most
circumstances, preparation is in place for routine disasters. The degree of decision
making definitely is related to the degree of the disaster. Lastly, the degree in
which collaborative efforts are sought after throughout community depends on how
catastrophic the disaster is (Kapucu and Van Wart 2006).
When it comes to the outcomes of extreme events and crises, it is imperative
to note the leaders ability to lead successfully. If the response to a crisis turns out
to be negative, it is inevitably the result of the work of the leader and it is usually
the poor quality of the leaders decision making that is responsible for undesirable
consequences. There are four major assumptions that outline how individuals
responsible for leading during crises manage these major challenges: (1) It is the
quality of the initial decisions or procedures that outlines how successful the final
outcome is. (2) Leaders must be capable of successfully making decisions to ensure


European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

quality outcomes. (3) Policymakers only make an effort to provide high quality
decision making if in fact the organization finds the issue to be important. (4) Even
though leaders may deal with an extremely important issue, one or more constraints
may dominate the leaders decision making (Janis 1989).
A catastrophic disaster is large in size and usually results in major disruption in
communication and the capacity for decision making. In order to be a successful
leader in a catastrophic event, one must be able to assess and adapt to the situation,
be able to reinstate communications, be willing to make all kinds of decisions, and
promote coordination between government and other other actors responses to
disasters or crises. In the task of managing disasters, there are four specific routine
functionalities that must be in place: (1) An established plan and system. (2) Good
communication and proper use of information technologies. (3) Prearranged decisionmaking procedures. (4) Formalized cooperation and effective boundary-spanning
agencies. There are several requirements for emergency managers in order to be
successful in all stages of disaster management. Emergency managers must be
willing to adapt to the circumstances and the situation at hand. Leaders must be
willing and able to restore all communication systems, because it is communication
that is essential to maintain working response efforts. In addition, leaders must be
willing to be flexible in their decision making processes. Lastly, the most effective
leadership is symbolic of a high level of coordination amongst different responders
in government, nonprofit, and private sectors (Kapucu 2006; Kapucu and Van Wart

Leadership Competencies in Managing Catastrophes

With the continual improvement of technology, modern governments are much
better equipped to handle crisis more effectively than empires or kingdoms in the
past. Today, in order to govern through times of crisis, it is imperative that leaders
rely on legitimacy and the trust of the people. Failure to do so will cause the system
to breakdown. This inevitably will lead to chaos with far-reaching consequences
and uncontrollable outcomes. In managing during times of disasters, along with
legitimacy and trust, it is important that leaders employ a sense of urgency in their
decision-making strategies. In the case of Katrina, all emergency personnel and
officials were caught by total surprise. It was this surprise that paralyzed response
and led to chaos. If there was capacity building for chaos, which includes planning,
preparation, and response flexibilities, along with surprise management, the advance
preparation would have saved lives and billions of dollars. According to Farazmand


Fatih Demiroz, Naim Kapucu

(2007, p. 157), surprise management is based on five principles: It rejects anything

that is routine and expected; It is constantly changing, includes flexibility and
adaptability; It requires certain preconditions to qualify as surprising and chaotic; It
demands cutting-edge knowledge, skills, and attitudes beyond the comprehension
of most people in routine environments of governance and administration; and, it
requires extraordinary and yet disciplined authority and power with unrestrained
Weick and Sutcliffe (2007) identify five qualities of mindfulness in managing the
unexpected: preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, and
sensitivity to operations (p. 45) to anticipate and become aware of the unexpected
and commitment to resilience and deference to expertise to contain the unexpected
when it occurs. While it may be true that the great leaders in history are those
who turned crisis into prosperity, it should be remembered that many failed in
the attempt. In the absence of systematic research into cases of successful crisisinduced reform, we cannot present a set of managerial prescriptions. The following
are three lessons from Boin and tHarts (2003) research that may help crisis leaders
to avoid reform-induced crisis: 1) Leaders need to formulate a crisis management
philosophy, which can help to negotiate the inherent dilemma of reparation and
reform; 2) Leaders should not push reform without considering opposite arguments.
If they use the crisis to ignore critics, they will mobilize their own opposition at a time
when their performance is already under scrutiny; and 3) Crisis-induced reform
creates exceptional challenges for the long term.

Leadership Competencies
Wayne Blanchard, coordinator of the FEMA higher education project at
Emergency Management Institute/FEMA, has identified core areas where it is
necessary that emergency managers be completely competent: (1) Leadership
and team building, (2) networking and coordination, (3) political, bureaucratic,
and social context (Patton 2007, p. 81). During times of crises, it is imperative that
emergency managers are not only firm and possess established protocols, but also
be creative and willing to improvise. It is the idea of collaboration during emergency
situations that provide emergency managers with time, energy, man power, and
funding. Lester and Krejci (2007) confirm Blanchards discussions and argue that
it is vital acting like a team with a shared mission and vision for success. Instead of
feuding over jurisdiction, state, federal, and local emergency management officials
need to join together as a team and not act like competitors. It is the role of the


European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

transformational leader to connect the larger vision with the needs present in the
environment and bring all actors together (Lester and Krejci 2007). Furthermore, need
for change within the organizational and interorganizational context require strong
leadership. The first key to changing a system is to make sure that the organization is
willing to change. The next step for transformation is for an organization to develop
a common goal or mission. It is also important to maintain the notion that leadership
does not lie alone in a centralized body but rather widespread throughout the entire
organization. It is the notion of this transformational leadership pattern that initiates
organizational trust and a sense of need to achieve the greater societal good (Lester
and Krejci 2007).
There are five key tasks in order to be successful in crisis leadership according
to Boin et al. (2005): (1) Sense Making Leaders have the responsibility to look
out for the possibility of crises and handle the preparation process to eliminate
any factors that could have been avoided. (2) Decision Making and Coordinating
Implementation Leaders have the responsibility to make final decisions and in doing
so make sure that they reach out to the community and gather as many interested
crisis responders as possible. (3) Meaning Making Leaders are in the limelight to
direct the public in the right direction. It is their ultimate responsibility to motivate
the community to believe that they will get through this situation. (4) Accounting and
Ending The leader must keep the effected parties on track to eventually achieve
closure and an opportunity to move on past the crisis. (5) Learning It is imperative
that the leader evaluates the situation and comes up with lessons that can be learned
from either the shortfalls or the successes of the entire response efforts. The most
important aspect of leading in crisis situation is through communication.
Leadership treats are applicable to crises situations in general but it is obvious
that specific crisis conditions will likely to require prioritization of different leadership
skills. Thus, Kapucu and Van Wart (2008) consider crisis leadership through overall
leadership literature and identify leadership skills that are vital for managing crises
and emergencies. They argue that leadership traits required during a catastrophe
may vary according to the level of leadership, type of field they operate, conditions
in the environment, stakeholders involved in decision making. In order to guide the
understanding leadership in crisis situations, Kapucu and Van Wart (2008) provide
a framework consisting of certain principles. Firstly, leaders should be skillful in
managing networks. Emergency management systems involve substantial amount
of interorganizational and intergovernmental networks. Numerous stakeholders in
the system have to collaborate with each other for reaching organizational goals as


Fatih Demiroz, Naim Kapucu

well as network goals as a whole (Waugh 2003; Patton 2007; Kapucu 2008, Kapucu
et al. 2010). From that sense National Response Framework (NRF) of U.S. addresses
the necessities of response efforts and offers a remarkable network of primary and
supporting agencies that are held responsible for responding to incidents. A leader
that has skills and abilities to successfully manage network relationships will likely to
have advantage in managing extraordinary situations.
Secondly, Kapucu and Van Wart (2008) underline that leadership during crises
and emergencies has political and administrative aspects. Politicians should be
able to communicate properly with other elected officials and appointed officials as
well as the public (Barton 2001). They need to control the emergency management
efforts before, during, and after disasters. Political leaders need to have the ability to
effectively command their organizations and ensure the completion of emergency
management efforts. Administrative leaders should actually conduct the vital
operations for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (Kapucu and Van
Wart 2008). Out of a long list they highlight a number of leadership characteristics.
Table 1 lays out the leadership characteristics that are addressed by Kapucu and
Van Wart (2008).

Table 1. Leadership Characteristics for Emergencies and Disasters

Lack of necessary leadership traits and skills may exacerbate the impact of
crises and eventually cause undesirable consequences. According to Lester and
Krejci (2007), collaboration that was addressed and designed by National Incident
Management System (NIMS) of U.S. largely failed during Hurricane Katrina.


European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

This failure sparks arguments about centralization of emergency management

leadership, yet Lester and Krejci (2007) do not see centralization as the best option.
They argue that the reason of failure was not because of decentralized leadership
per se, but it was because NIMS was not able to foster collaboration in local and
state entities in managing emergencies and disasters. In other words, this is a failure
of managing interorganizational and intergovernmental networks. Weakness of
New Orleans levee system was widely known before Katrina hit the city. Although
some improvements were made, the levees were not able to withstand a hurricane
stronger than Category 3. Federal funds were not available enough to strengthen
the infrastructure up to a desirable point. In addition to these pre-disaster leadership
and administrative deficiencies Kapucu and Van (2008) Wart note that there was
an incredible weakness in the chain of command in and around New Orleans in
terms of who was authorized to make emergency decisions (p. 725) during the
Katrina disaster. The governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans declared
mandatory evacuation 19 hours prior to hurricanes landfall, which left thousands
of people unable to evacuate the city (GAO 2006). Moreover, there was poor
leadership in flexible decision making for shelter arrangements during the hurricane.
Superdome was designated for sheltering 20,000, yet the preparations for that many
people, sanitations, water stock, air ventilation and so forth were insufficient (Kapucu
and Van Wart 2008). Unreasonable decision making was not prominent only at the
local level. There was significant reluctance to and lack of coordination. Kapucu
and Van Wart (2008) states that Governor Bianco refused to sign an agreement
proposed by the White House to share control of National Guard forces with federal
authorities (p. 733). This reluctance to share authority in case of Governor Bianco
may stem from lack of trust among leaders. In fact, federal agencies were suspicious
about the coping capacity of local administrations, whilst local governments were
not comfortable with federal oversight since it reminds a control of national entities
over locals.

Leadership is one of the key aspects of managing emergencies and crises
successfully. Leading before, during, and after the crises require different
competencies and traits than other types of leadership. Catastrophic disasters and
routine emergencies mostly demand different leadership patterns. Leaders need
to be able to manage surprises mostly prominent in catastrophes. On the other
hand, routine emergencies generally require more standardized actions. Although


Fatih Demiroz, Naim Kapucu

leadership requirements may vary based on the type of crisis, environment, type
of organization, sector, and scope of the event, it is possible to draw a framework
for leadership competencies necessary for disaster and crises management. In
general terms, being able to cooperate with other stakeholders, being flexible in
decision making and operations, adaptability to disaster conditions, and effective
communication with other stakeholders and the public are most important leadership

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European Journal of Economic and Political Studies

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